"And here, too, one learns that the world, though made,
is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation..."
The creation ends in south Georgia, at the very edge of the sweet earth. Only the sky, widest of the wide, goes on, flatness against flatness. The sky appears so close that, with a long-enough extension ladder, you think you could touch it, and sometimes you do, when the clouds descend in the night to set a fine pelt of dew on the grasses, leaving behind white trails of fog and mist.
At night the stars are thick and bright as a pint jar of fireflies, the moon at full a pearly orb, sailing through them like an egret. By day the sun, close in a paper sky, laps moisture from the land, then gives it back, always an exchange. Even in drought, when each dawn a parched sun cracks against the horizon's griddle, the air is thick with water.
It is a land of few surprises. It is a land of routine, of cycle, and of constancy. Many a summer afternoon a black cloud builds to the southwest, approaching until you hear thunder and spot lightning; and even then there's time to clear away tools and bring in the laundry before the first raindrops spatter down. Everything that comes you see coming.
That's because the land is so wide, so much of it open. It's wide open, flat as a book, vulnerable as a child. It's easy to take advantage of, and yet it is also a land of dignity. It has been the way it is for thousands of years, and it is not wont to change.
The Crackers crossed the wide Altamaha
into what had been Creek territory and
settled the vast, fire-loving uplands
of the coastal plains of southeast Georgia...
...surrounded by a singing forest of tall
and widely-spaced pines whose history they
did not know, whose stories were untold.
To find myself among what has been and what remains, I go where my grandmother's name is inscribed on a clayhill beside my grandfather. The cemetery rests in a sparse stand of remnant longleaf pine, where clumps of wiregrass can still be found. From the grave I can see a hardwood drain, hung with Spanish moss, and beyond to a cypress swamp, and almost to the river, but beyond that, there is only sky.
the uplands and lowlands of southern Georgia.
The region lies below what's called the
a half-imaginary demarcation avouched by a slight dip in the land,
above which the piedmont climbs to the foothills of the Blue
Ridge, then up that mountain chain to the eastern continental
divide. The fall line separates the piedmont from the Atlantic
coastal plain -- a wide flat plateau of pineywoods that sweeps to
a marble sea.
straight, lonely roads
and tracts of planted pines.
No mountains, no canyons, no rocky streams, no waterfalls.
The rivers are muddy, wide and flat, like somebody's feet.
The coastal plain lacks the stark grace of the desert or the umber panache of the pampas.
Unless you look close, there's little majesty.
It wasn't always this way.
Even now in places, in the Red Hills near Thomasville, for example, and on Fort Stewart Military Reservation near Hinesville, you can see how south Georgia used to be, before all the old longleaf pine forests that were our sublimity and our majesty were cut. Nothing is more beautiful, nothing more mysterious, nothing more breathtaking, nothing more surreal.
Longleaf pine is the tree that grows in the upland flatwoods of the coastal plains. Miles and miles of longleaf and wiregrass, the groundcover that coevolved with the pine, once covered the left hip of North America -- from Virginia to the Florida peninsula, west past the Mississippi River: longleaf as far in any direction as you could see. In a longleaf forest, miles of trees forever fade into a brilliant salmon sunset and reappear the next dawn as a battalion marching out of fog. The tip of each needle carries a single drop of silver. The trees are so well-spaced that their limbs seldom touch and sunlight streams between and within them. Below their flattened braches, grasses arch their tall richly dun heads of seeds, and orchids and lilies paint the ground orange and scarlet. Purple liatris gestures across the landscape. Our eyes seek the flowers like they seek the flashes of birds and the careful crossings of forest animals.
You can still see this in places.
Forest historians estimate that longleaf covered 85 of the 156 million acres in its southeastern range. By 1930, virtually all of the virgin longleaf pine had been felled. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, about two million acres of longleaf remain. Most is first- and second- growth, hard-hit by logging, turpentining, grazing, and the suppression of fire.
Less than 10,000 acres are virgin -- not even 0.001 percent of what was.
There's none known in Virginia,
none in Louisiana,
none in Texas,
none in South Carolina.
About 200 old-growth acres remain in Mississippi, about 300 in Alabama, and almost 500 in North Carolina, in four separate tracts.
The rest survives in Georgia and Florida.
An estimated 3,000 acres of old-growth in Georgia lie on private land, precariously.
The largest holding of virgin longleaf, about 5,000 acres, belongs to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
In a 1995 National Biological Service
assessment of biological loss, eco-
logist Reed Noss classified the longleaf/
wiregrass community as "critically
endangered." Ninety-eight percent of the
presettlement longleaf pine barrens in
the southeastern coastal plains were lost
by 1986, he said.
Natural stands -- meaning not planted -- have been reduced by about 99 percent.
This was not a loss I knew as a child. Longleaf was a word I never heard. But it is a loss that as an adult shadows every step I take. I am daily aghast at how much we have taken, since it does not belong to us, and how much as a people we have suffered in consequence.
Not long ago I dreamed of actually cradling a place,
as if something so amorphous and vague as a region,
existing mostly in imagination and idea,
suddenly took form.
I held its shrunken relief in my arms,
a baby smelted from a plastic topography map,
and when I gazed down into its face,
as my father had gazed into mine,
I saw the pine flatwoods of my homeland.
When we consider what is happening to our forests -- and to the birds, reptiles, and insects that live there -- we must think also of ourselves.
Culture springs from the actions of people in a landscape, and what we, especially Southerners, are watching is a daily erosion of unique folkways as our native ecosystems and all their inhabitants disappear. Our culture is tied to the longleaf pine forest that produced us, that has sheltered us, that we occupy. The forest keeps disappearing, disappearing, sold off, stolen.
In the midst of new uncertainties in the world, including global economics and a frenzy of technology, we look around and see that the landscape that defined us no longer exists or that its form is altered so dramatically we don't recognize it as our own. Animals that adapted as we adapted to place dwindle and die out. The rivers that have been lifelines are polluted by radioactive waste.
Where do we turn? To what then do we look for meaning and consolation and hope?
We recognize that the loss of our forests -- which is to say of health, of culture, of heritage, of beauty, of the infinite hopefulness of a virgin forest where time stalls -- is a loss we all share. All of our names are written on the deed to rapacity. When we log and destroy and cut and pave and replace and kill, we steal from each other and from ourselves. We swipe from our past and degrade our future.
We don't mind growing trees in the South; it's a good place for silviculture, sunny and watery, with a growing season to make a Yankee gardener weep. What we mind is that all of our trees are being taken. We want more than 1 percent natural stands of longleaf.
We know a pine plantation is not a forest, and the wholesale conversion to monocultures is unacceptable to us.
We Southerners are a people fighting again for our country, defending the last remaining stands of real forest. Although we love to frolic, the time has come to fight.
We must fight.
In new rebellion we stand together;
black and white, urbanite and farmer, workers all
in keeping Dixie.
We are a patient people who for generations have not been ousted from this land, and we are willing to fight for the birthright of our children's children and their children's children, to be a place, in all ways, for all time.
What is left is not enough.
When we say the South will rise again we can mean that
we will allow the cutover forests to return to their former grandeur and pine plantations to grow wild.
The whippoorwill is calling from the edge.
Text adapted from:
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse Ray
Travels in Alaska, John Muir
Original design by Alison Jibilian